Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tales to Tell

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Story telling is as old as age! It was probably the first means of entertainment long before the media existed or even paper and books. But every culture has managed to chronicle and save some of its heritage by writing them down, or in some instances just painting or chiseling them on walls.
The Egyptians were one of the earliest civilizations to kept record in writing their everyday lives. However, the earliest preserved story written dates back from the Middle Kingdom, and because most of their literary tradition was oral or spoken, it was never written down, so the works that have actually survived are fewer than be expected.

From autobiographies and mythological tales to folk and fairy tales the ancient Egyptians made journals of it all, on papyrus paper, walls or even slabs of stone. My personal favorite is the Legend of Isis and Osiris. The story tells of the good and benevolent King Osiris
who was murdered by his wicked brother Seth due to jealousy and hatred. The corpse of Osiris was thrown into the Nile and his faithful wife Isis searched until she found him and hid him in the marshes of the Delta. Through magic, which she practiced and mastered, Isis became pregnant. Isis gave birth to their child Horus, who became the heir to his father's throne and avenged his father Osiris. Osiris became the king of the Land of the Dead.

There's also the oldest Cinderella story, but in the ancient Egyptian version the glass slippers are "rose red slippers". And from the Ptolemaic period there's "The Seven Years of Famine" which was discovered on the rocks of the Island of Sahal in 1890 by Charles Wilbour. But the oldest and most popular tales of Egyptians was the story of Sinuhe. This story was preserved in six papyri and two dozen ostraca. This biography tells of Sinuhe who fled Egypt to Western Asia after the assassination of King Amenemhat Ι. After many years Sinuhe returned to his homeland when he was pardoned by King Senusert Ι and reinstated at the royal court.

The fairy tale of Setne Khamwas, a son of Ramesses ΙΙ tells of his fascination with the magic texts of the past brought him to an encounter with the ghost of a long dead magician in his tomb at Saqqara. In a story within a story, he learned of an episode of the magician's life. On the golden shrine of Tutankhamun, was the story "The Book of the Cow of Heaven" (or "the Destruction of Mankind") which tells of the sun god, Ra, who was confronted with a rebellion of mankind, so he sent his "eye," Hathor, or in a later version, Sekhmet, down to earth in the form of a lioness, which proceeded to devour men. When Ra called her back she refused, so he had to trick her. One night he created a red colored beer that looked like human blood. Sekhmet drank it all and became intoxicated and so in this way Ra saved humankind.

"The Turquoise Amulet" was a story of a maiden who loses a hair clasp in the form of an amulet of turquoise. This is one of the stories that helped to give Snefru the title of The Good King, for it shows his good nature and his willingness to please others, something other pharaohs would not dream of doing. Another story that was written on the Harris Papyrus which is housed in the British Museum is "The Doomed Prince". When it was first discovered the story was complete, but since then, the papyrus has been partly destroyed and the end of the story has been lost. This story may also be known by the title "The Crocodile, the Snake and the Dog" because it tells of a prince who was fated by the gods to die by the Snake, the Crocodile or the Dog.

The tales are many, and are all fascinating and captivating. During the course of the next few posts we'll rediscover their charm, also getting an insight into a culture that built its civilization on stories of the gods.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Vanishing Mesaharaty

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It’s a shame how many old traditions vanish from our lives into extinction. Modern technology eroding away at icons that are synonymous with events and festivals that have managed to survive the tests of time.

Ramadan being a time of spiritual rituals, charity and tradition, I always loved the nostalgic feel the month brings along every year. And as a child at this time of year my fixations were the colourful fanous (lantern) and to stay up long enough to hear the mesaharaty passing through the streets calling for people to wake up.

The mesaharaty walks through the neighborhood shortly before dawn, calling on to people to wake up to take el Sohour (the last meal before they begin the fasting of the new day). Traditionally he would walk through the streets and alleys beating a small drum to a simple rhythm and calling people by their names to wake up!
The mesaharaty tradition goes back to the early days of Islam. Bilal Ibn Maktoom was the first mesaharaty in Islam and he used to call people from the top of the mosque to stop eating. The tradition started in Egypt in the year 238 AH (Hijri) with Antaba Bin Ishaq, the ruler of Egypt, himself walking from Fustat City (old Cairo) to Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque singing " e'bad Allah tasaharo " (worshipers of Allah, eat Sohour). In time, the drum was introduced as an instrument to assist the mesaharaty.

During Ramadan people usually stay up late, accommodating the mesaharaty perfectly because he makes so much noise in the early hours that he can be heard for several blocks in all directions. He does not get a fixed salary but depends on receiving donations from the neighborhood at the end of Ramadan, when the people whose names have been called donate money. Though the mesaharaty may not know all his neighbors by name as he did in the past, many continue the tradition of drumming and chanting for people to wake up to eat. Although the alms he gets may not be much to put bread on the table, the expression of excitement lighting up a child's face is sometimes satisfaction enough. In the old days, the mesaharaty was accompanied by the children of the neighborhood who helped him beat his drum and call for sohour.
As half the month of Ramadan has passed now, yesterday was the first I've heard of the mesaharaty in years! I admit to having the same nostalgic excitement , to have been up long enough to hear him calling, as i did as a child! The mesaharaty may be extinct in the urban areas, but they are still found in some parts of Cairo and in the villages in the countryside.

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Egypt Tours

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Month of Ramadan

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During the month of Ramadan the whole country acquires a festive feel. Muslims in Egypt always celebrated the coming of the holy month of Ramadan with lights and decorations. So traveling to Egypt during Ramadan is a truly unique and animated experience which will further add to your experience and your cultural knowledge of the country. It is the most important festival in the Islamic calendar, with Muslims celebrating the month with joy & happiness. They prepare for it by hanging up colored decorations in the streets and banners announcing that Ramadan is coming soon. During Ramadan, people greet each other with the words "Ramadan Karim."

Ramadan is a month that follows the lunar calendar, the basis of the Islamic (or Hijri) calendar. With an eleven-day offset from the Gregorian (western) calendar, astronomical calculations are utilized to detect the birth of the new moon, yet it remains for its visualization after sunset before it is announced on the radio and television. Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, as do most lunar months. ‘Ramadan’ is derived from the word ‘Ramada’ a hot stone, it is meant to burn sins. Fasting became obligatory for Muslims during the second year of the Islamic Calendar, the month in which the Quran was revealed.

Ramadan is the month during which Prophet Mohammed received the revelation of the Quran fourteen centuries ago. According to Islam, the month is dedicated to prayers, as it is believed that it is an occasion to wash one’s sins away and enjoy God’s unlimited mercy. Ramadan in Egypt is special with many activities that show the true nature of Egyptians. In essence they are religious, enjoy charity and social gatherings.

It is astonishing how people feel so happy though they know that they will spend one full month abstaining from food and drink. The period of fasting starts from dawn with the first call of prayer of the day "el fajr" until sunset, when they break their fasting usually with a date, since it is a "sunna" (a habit taken from Prophet Mohammed). Fasting entails abstaining from food, drink, smoking or sinning, no matter how minor. Equally, a fasting Muslim should keep away his/her eyes, tongue and hands from any kind of bad deeds like back biting or else their fasting will be considered incomplete. Children (until a certain age), travelers, the sick, pregnant women and women in their monthly cycle have permission not to fasting. Though the usual daily practice is in most ways normal, Muslims prefer to spend more time praying giving alms and reading the Quran, particularly at night.

However, it should be noted that officially, monuments and other tourist sites are open until 3:00 pm, while in reality, some of the less frequented sites may close an hour earlier. While there are many restaurants open to tourists, many may not serve alcoholic beverages during Ramadan. However, almost all larger hotels, as well as smaller hotels that cater to tourists will be completely operational, including their bars, and they will serve alcoholic drinks as usual.

Since Egyptians are big eaters, they usually look forward to Ramadan. "Iftar" is considered the main meal of the day and is often very rich. Any type of food might be served, but traditionally the dessert almost always includes "konafa" or "katayef" as well as a very delicious juice called "kamar el din" (apricot juice). Most people prefer to spend at least the first day in an extended family gathering in the home of the grand parents’. After the first few days, people start to go out after "iftar". And today it has become a tradition for hotels to erect large tents, furnished in the old Arabian decoration, where people enjoy their time listening to old traditional songs and music and smoking "sheesha" or water-pipes, evoking the atmosphere of the old classical days.

The tradition of hanging lights on mosques and colored flags and the "fanous" (lantern) in alleyways and balconies dates back to a few centuries ago and it was used primarily to light the streets for people who walk at night to the mosques to perform the prayers. The "fanous" is now used by children as a toy that is coupled with this wonderful occasion. Over the years it has evolved in sizes, shapes, colors and may even include musical backgrounds.

The story of "the Canon of Ramadan" dates back to the time of the Viceroy of Cairo, who received the gun as a present. He ordered his assistants to try it. The experiment took place about sunset during the first day of Ramadan. The people took it as a sign to announce the end of the day's fast. Since then the Viceroy ordered that the gun should be fired at sunset and this became a constant feature of Ramadan. The gun is still fired today although it has now been replaced by the radio and TV.

Regardless of religion, it is a common thing to find many Muslims and Christians gathered together at the time of "iftar". It is not considered good manners to outwardly make a display of not fasting. Though not illegal, those who do not fast would usually hide to eat drink or smoke. Egyptian Christians also participate in most of these practices with their fellow Muslims. Some would also fast as a sign of national unity, but even those who do not would never eat or drink in public, as a sign of respect to Islamic traditions.

Ramadan culminates in a three day celebration of "Eid al-Fitr". Ramadan ends with the happiness of Eid and the warm heartedness and goodwill the Egyptians feel towards one another. Once the three days of Eid festivities are over they start the count down once again, with love and eagerness, for the coming of the next Ramadan the following year.

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The Medieval Bazaar

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A portal that transports you back into time, Khan el Khalili gives its visitors a glimpse into what a traditional market was like in the middle ages, with its medieval atmosphere and labyrinth of winding streets and twisted alleyways.

In 1382 Emir Djaharks el-Khalili built a big caravanserai (or khan) in the heart of the Fatimid City. A caravanseri was like a hotel for traders, and usually the central point to an area's economic activity. This caravanserai is still there, you just ask for the narrow street of Sikka Khan el-Khalili and Badestan. The Khan el-Khalili Bazaar is situated at one corner of a triangle of markets that go south to Bab Zuwayla and west to Azbakiyyah. The Khan is bordered on the south by al-Azhar Street and on the west by the Muski Market. One of the old original gates guards the entrance to the original courtyard which lies midway down Sikkit al-Badistan Street. The al-Hussein Mosque is also in Khan el-Khalili and Al-Azhar University and its mosque are not far away.

On a narrow street leading off al-Badistan, El Fishawi Café (or Café of Mirrors), is open continuously day and night, and you can count on that, because it has been so for over 200 years. It is small, a little crammed, and with mirrors almost everywhere. It has been the meeting place for local artists, and has been frequented by the Nobel Award winning laureate Naguib Mahfouz, one of Egypt's most well known authors. His novel Midaq Alley is set in an alley in Khan el Khalili.

The place where art and commerce come together, Khan el Khalili is the heart of the city. You can easily wander the streets of this bazaar to take it all in. You don't need a guide, or even a guide book, and should you get lost, just keep going in one direction and you will quickly come out of the maze, and close to a taxi. But if you’re planning on doing any shopping, be prepared to bargain shamelessly! Just remember that you should never feel that you insult or disappoint a seller by not buying.

Clothes are cheap, spices are of good quality and affordable, souvenirs are of good quality as in the hotel lobby, but at a better price. Jewelry is a matter of taste, and there's an enormous variety of gold on offer. The perfume shops of the Khan are particularly tempting, saturated with spicy and floral scents. Colorfully decorated and brightly light, they’re run by clerks who can mix any fragrance you desire. Egyptian buyers generally shop in the area north of al-Badistan and to the west, where prices may be lower. Better deals for gold and silver are to be found west of the Khan along the "Street of the Gold Sellers", and further on one will find the Brass and Coppersmith Markets.

The Khan is a MUST see, not to be missed even on a rainy day, as it is an open market, don't let anything discourage you from this experience, it is still worth the visit!

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Egypt Tours